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Suketu Mehta’s blue couch of ideas

Artwork by Deepak Harichandan

Artwork by Deepak Harichandan   | Photo Credit: Artwork by Deepak Harichandan

In this three-part series, we look at where authors work. First up, Suketu Mehta’s functional office on the NYU campus

The hiatus between Suketu Mehta’s Mumbai blockbuster, Maximum City, and his highly-anticipated book about New York (affectionately referred to as “My never-ending New York book” or “The Albatross”) is fourteen years and counting. But the lull has recently been lifted with an exciting three-book deal with Farrar Straus and Giroux. Could this sudden shift towards prolificacy have something to do with Mehta’s desk? Or perhaps his top-secret maximum hot sauce? I visited his office in Cooper Square, where he teaches journalism at the New York University, to find out.

The room is functional. Bookshelves run along one wall, a lone dustbin sits placidly in a corner, a couple of standard office lamps stand their ground. Above the desk hang a Mario Miranda print and “a Mughal thing.” The most ostentatious item in the room is a Tupperware box of namkeen. There’s a mini fridge with wine, iced tea and the famous maximum hot sauce, which Mehta makes himself. “I take it to bland French restaurants where they think tarragon is a spice,” he quips.

Despite its spartan feel, the office has its enchantments. Prior to my visit, fellow writer and New Yorker Gary Shteyngart revealed a more than slight jealousy that Mehta’s office had a couch in it. Indeed, a dark blue couch sits by the window. “A writer needs a lot of down time,” Mehta says. “I’ve never had an office as nice as this. It’s an office, but it’s also an adda.” On Tuesdays, after he finishes teaching, the office turns into a watering hole. The bars in the area are noisy and overcrowded. The office is quiet and furnished with a steady supply of whisky and namkeen. A recent visitor to the university, Norwegian writer Åsne Seierstad, delivered her lecture, then napped on the couch while adda was in session. “We kept chatting and then she woke up and joined the conversation!”

I scan the room for personal effects — a portly Ganesha, a velvet-covered diary, photographs. Nothing. “I don’t like looking at photographs while I’m writing. I understand the Islamic prohibition of the image because it really has an effect on you...” At home, he likes to arrive at his desk straight from dreams. Sometimes he’ll listen to music, but the most crucial thing is “Freedom” — the app that shuts off the Internet for however long you tell it to.

“It saved my life. I’ve seen the finest minds of my generation destroyed by the Internet, and that’s because you tell yourself I’ll just look up this one fact, and then you go into a Borgesian labyrinth… Most writers I know would rather be doing anything else but write. So many writers I know are really great cooks — Jhumpa Lahiri, Amitav Ghosh. Agatha Christie used to wash dishes relentlessly, and that’s where she got her ideas for plots. It’s important to know all the ways in which writers sabotage themselves and to fight that.”

This year FSG will publish Mehta’s book on migration, This Land is Their Land — an expanded version of an essay he wrote for Foreign Policy, where he examines the fear of immigrants in western nations. For Mehta, immigrants are heroes: “The immigrant armada that is coming to your shores is actually a rescue fleet,” he writes. The piece earned him multiple death threats from right wing organisations and mean tweets from Ann Coulter. In 2020, The Secret Life of Cities, which has already been published in Italian and Spanish, will become available in English. Eventually, the never-ending New York book will also be published. In the meantime, there’s a movie offer based on an article he wrote for GQ about a ring of all-female weed dealers in Manhattan called the Green Angels, run by a former Mormon supermodel, and there’s teaching.

Mehta tells me he began teaching as a way to put his two boys through school, but now he’s besotted with it. “I see it not as an imposition, but as a kind of service. My gurus UR Ananthamurthy and James McPherson (at the University of Iowa) had such an enormous influence on my life. If I can take that forward, it would be a privilege.”

Mehta recalls how their small class on Indian mythology gathered in a classroom in Iowa. URA apparently looked at them and said, What are we doing here? Let us go to my home. My wife will cook. “So there was Esther Aunty and she made tamarind rice and there was a bottle of whisky and the class lasted till three in the morning and so did every other class…and he would just riff. I got an entire education, because I was from Queens, really. I didn’t know much about India. It was a true guru-shishya relationship.”

“Even if I had a wife, I would be the one doing the cooking,” Mehta says, when I ask if he feels he’s continuing the tradition. “But this idea of having students home till three in the morning and getting them drunk is not done so much these days.” Instead, he takes them for a ride on the Staten Island ferry—something he does with his undergraduate students every semester. The course is about New York and they read all the great books about the city—including Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.”

I sit on the blue couch waiting for another guest, Salman Rushdie, whose office is down the corridor. “I need to have a window,” Mehta says before leaving. “It’s a nice view. Kind of Hopperesque. I don’t see many people. More importantly, I don’t have any noise.”

A three-part series on where writers write

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Printable version | Apr 4, 2020 2:57:56 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-authors/room-to-write-part-one-suketu-mehta/article26149614.ece

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